The creative, 16-piece New Standard Jazz Orchestra (NSJO) is a cohesive ensemble made up of some of the most brilliant musicians in Chicago. Under the co-direction of trombonist Andy Baker and saxophonist Ken Partyka, there is a sophisticated style and a cinematic sound, both of which are well represented on the debut release, Waltz About Nothing.
Altoist Chris Madsen's "Spring and Fall" has a feel of a film soundtrack. Horns and woodwinds overlap to weave its expansive orchestral lines. Over the rhythm section's percolating and rolling beats, the composer's melodic and bittersweet solo meanders with elegance and fervor.
The leaders showcase their instrumental virtuosity on Baker's effervescent "Samba for Someone." The bright, up-tempo tune sashays with ease and grace, setting the stage for Partyka. His lithe, clean alto lets loose an intricately constructed improvisation that is refreshingly inventive with a romantic touch. Baker follows with a poetic and eloquent monologue that melts into the shimmering and exuberant head.
Duke Ellington's tender ballad "Star Crossed Lovers" opens with trombonist Tim Coffman's lyrical and reverberating soliloquy. Various instruments meander in and out of an exquisite group song before trumpeter Marquis Hill takes center stage. Hill's warm and expressive extemporization flows over the band's refrains like a mellow breeze.
One of the highlights of this uniformly superlative album is the closing track, an intriguing rendition of the Miles Davis classic, "Milestones." Pianist Dan Murphy starts off with boppish fast phrases. The woodwinds and brass skillfully overlap to recreate the tight structure of the original. Trumpeter BJ Cord blows with a burnished tone and passionate spontaneity. Saxophonist Mark Colby quotes from other standards during his turn in the spotlight, while trombonist Tom Garling thrills with his growling acrobatics.
Waltz About Nothing is an accessible, highly enjoyable and exciting recording. It equally highlights the skills of the individual members of NSJO as well as its dynamic, collective style—one firmly rooted in tradition, but also surprisingly modern.